- Area: Humanities
- Program: English
- Type of Writing: Essay (Analytical, Interpretive)
- Course Level: 2000
- English Speaking Nativeness: Native
- Year: 2018
- Paper ID: H.E.E.2.N.2.1.1469
The Rainbow Connection- Queering the Muppets
“Why are there so many songs about rainbows?”
When Kermit the Frog asked this question in The Muppet Movie in 1979, the rainbow flag symbolizing gay pride and liberation had only been designed one year before. Rainbows were not yet synonymous with the LGBTQIA+ community like they are now. Still, the rainbow symbolism in the Muppets seems so appropriate for the contemporary queer experience. The Muppets franchise, through The Muppet Show, the original 1979 film The Muppet Movie, and all subsequent movies and television shows, is a model for inclusivity and defiance of heteronormativity- though none of its characters are explicitly queer.
Multiple Muppet characters appear to be queer coded or in homosocial relationships. Queer coding- giving a character qualities which make them appear to be queer, though their sexual orientation may never be brought into the story (Ennis, 2018)- is frequently done to distance characters from the audience; they become objects to be laughed at or distrusted.
Much has been written about the queer coding of Disney villains. In particular, the villain in The Little Mermaid, Ursula The Sea Witch, was explicitly modeled after the real-life drag queen Divine (Dart, 2017). Her masculine qualities, stature, and showmanship are all used to make sure the audience does not identify with her, and instead, know right away that she is someone to be feared and hated. This pattern in queer coded characters is common. The Muppets use similar coding, but to a different end.
Like Ursula, Miss Piggy seems to be inspired by the kinds of drag queens that were popular when she was created in the 1970s. She is voiced by Frank Oz, who also voiced Fozzie Bear, Animal, and Sam Eagle in the original Muppet show and movies, so her voice has a more masculine quality. She is physically larger than many of the other characters, in particular her boyfriend Kermit. She loves fashion and is always dressing up in flamboyant costumes. Today, Miss Coco Peru and Miss Fame are both current drag superstars. “Miss” has always been a popular precursor to a drag name. These are all qualities Miss Piggy has in common with a stereotypical drag queen.
Unlike her Disney counterpart, her coding does not demonize her. She is celebrated for being exactly who she is. Not only does Kermit love her, but she is universally recognized as being one of the most beautiful characters- even winning a beauty competition in the 1979 The Muppet Movie. When Kermit is unable to escape his restraints to save himself from being mind-controlled, she is the one who breaks free of the ropes tied around her and fights the bad guys off. The ways she chooses to embrace femininity, and the ways she doesn’t quite fit the “woman” mold both make her more valuable as a member of her team, and are embraced by her friends.
Other characters participate in homosocial relationships. Statler and Waldorf are a perfect example. They are two old men who are more comfortable with each other than with anyone else, and they are only seen on screen together. They know each other so well that they can perfectly set up jokes for the other, and even finish each other’s sentences. It is easy to read them as an old married couple. One of those gay couples that has been together for fifty years. Another example of a male-male homosocial relationship in the Muppets is Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker. Like Statler and Waldorf, these two characters are exclusively seen together. Dr. Honeydew understands the way Beaker speaks, though it is unintelligible to the audience.
Other characters have qualities that can be seen as queer, but are more open to interpretation. A large part of the character Gonzo’s arc over the entire franchise (until the movie Muppets in Space) is that he doesn’t know what he is. He feels disconnected from those around him because he is not a person, nor is he any recognizable animal. Kermit says he’s “a little like a Turkey… but not much.” Other characters usually refer to him as a “Whatever”. Even in this liminal identity he is loved by his friends as he explores who he is, and what he wants to be. The Muppet band Electric Mayhem also explores close homosocial relationships. The members of the band coexist in an almost polyamorous group dynamic. They always stick together, living in their tour bus or even in abandoned churches. Even if their relationships are all plutonic, they have an intimacy with each other that is not shared by other characters.
In The Muppet Movie Kermit and Rowlf sing a song together, lamenting their bad luck with love (the song is actually about how they wish they could find romance without dealing with women, but that seems to be less queer than the typical “Women! Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em” sentiment that has been expressed many times over). In the song, Kermit observes, “There’s no limitation to mixin’ and matchin’”, and the Muppets are true to that. They mix and match characters as they please, giving no regard to heteronormative standards.
In the 2011 film The Muppets, the character Walter experiences a story-arc that can be read as a metaphor for the queer experience. Although he is not obviously coded as queer, and he has no romantic relationships in the film, the feelings he expresses and experiences he has are similar to those experienced by queer individuals during their process of self discovery and coming out of the closet.
Walter always knew he was different, but he didn’t know how. His first exposure to the Muppets was through their television show. He instantly recognizes himself in them and longs to be a part of the community they have. He becomes the Muppets biggest fan, plastering his walls in posters, and religiously watching them on TV. Through voice over narration he says: “They made all the difference… As long as there are muppets, for me there’s still hope.”
Many queer people learn of the existence, or at least the value, culture, and community of other queer people through media. Television, movies, and music all make LGBTQ+ kids feel less alone. Even if they don’t know that the celebrity they look up to is queer, even if they don’t know that they themselves are queer yet, they can find hope in the representation of people who look or act like them that they see in the media.
In the film, Walter feels distance from his brother as they both grow up. His brother, Gary, has a serious girlfriend who he is getting closer and closer to. Walter doesn’t know how he will fit in to this new world his brother is entering, since Walter himself has no prospect of finding a nice human girlfriend like his brother.
In the emotional climax of Walter’s journey, he sings the song “Man or Muppet”. Over the course of the song, he has to decide who he will be. He sings: “Am I a man or am I Muppet? If I’m a Muppet, well I’m a very manly Muppet. If I’m a man, that makes me a Muppet of a man.” By the end of the song he knows: “I’m a very manly Muppet!” This song is not about him making a choice about his identity, but rather grappling with who he is deep inside, and whether he will choose to be true to that or not.
This song carefully and simply expresses the emotional condition articulated by W.E.B. Du Bois as “double consciousness”. He writes in “Strivings of the Negro People” about this concept as experienced by African-Americans. He says that a person who is marginalized by a hatful majority will view their own identity as segmented- black and American, gay and Christian, Muppet and man- which can make it difficult to have a healthy sense of self (Du Bois, 1897). Du Bois is a world renowned civil rights activist and writer, and this representation of one of his concepts in a movie like The Muppets shows that the film was written with a sophisticated worldview.
In the Muppets franchise, even characters who are not coded as queer, in homosocial relationships, or metaphors for the queer experience do participate in active defiance of heteronormative standards. They are kind to each other in ways toxic masculinity and patriarchal culture would deem “too gay” to be appropriate. They compliment each other, and are physically affectionate to each other. Their relationships are bound by love, not by who would make an attractive couple. Gonzo loves a chicken; their relationship is unconventional and not centered around reproduction, but it is validated as much as any other.
The central relationship of the franchise is the one between Miss Piggy and Kermit. In addition to Miss Piggy being coded as queer, her entire relationship with Kermit casts off oppressive expectations. They are sweet with each other, and bicker in all the right ways. They love each other, and it never matters that Miss Piggy is almost always the more aggressive party. She is the one making romantic advances on Kermit. She is the one fighting to protect him from evil. The Muppets make it clear that individuality is more important than conforming to a gender mold.
The Muppet Movie models nontraditional family living, much like the families some queer people aspire to build. Without being able to consistently rely on biological reproduction to start families, or the ability to lean on a loyal family of origin for support, queer people have always had to find communities that differ from the traditional model of the nuclear family. There is not much representation for how a situation like that could work, but the Muppet franchise shows one great example. All of the Muppets care for each other’s emotional and physical needs, regardless of romantic involvement. They spend all of their time together, even living together in some incarnations of their stories.
At the end of The Muppet Movie Kermit says: “I found a bunch of friends that share the same dream. That makes us kind of like a family.” Indeed, the thing that brings all the Muppets together is that they share the same dream, the same values, and the same love for each other. That is something that can be replicated by contemporary queer individuals looking to form and express intimacy outside the nuclear family.
Though the Muppet franchise does not contain explicitly queer characters, it does provide positive representation of people who have characteristics often demonized for their association with queerness, people in intimate (though not explicitly romantic or sexual) same-sex relationships, and people choosing to create their own version of family. In a time when overt queer representation of television and movies was almost non-existent, and what was there was often negative, the Muppets provided a beautiful space for viewers wanting to live in a more inclusive world. Now, though the world has become more tolerant of queer people, we still have a lot to learn about inclusivity and finding strength in our differences, and the Muppets show us one way to do that.
“Someday we’ll find it/ the Rainbow Connection/ the lovers, the dreamers, and me.”
Ennis, T. (2018, June 13). The strange, difficult history of queer coding. Retrieved from https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/the-strange-difficult-history-of-queer-coding
Dart, C. (2017, August 23). How Divine inspired Ursula The Sea Witch. Retrieved September 16, 2018, from https://news.avclub.com/read-this-how-divine-inspired-ursula-the-sea-witch-1798243255
Du Bois, W. E. (1897, August). Strivings of the Negro People. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1897/08/strivings-of-the-negro-people/305446/